A Malaysian job-training center emphasizes creativity and independence for adults with special needs.
Story by Jack Brockley • Photos by Curtis Billue
Ong Yong Ching hunches over his work. He grabs a white vial. He grabs a yellow cap. He twists the cap onto the vial and tosses it into a box across the table. He grabs another vial and another cap. Around him, his co-workers keep up a lively chatter that echoes in the spacious Mohm Chemical factory in northern Johor Bahru, Malaysia. They laugh, tease one another and casually coordinate their work, calling out requests for more caps and announcing the completion of an order. Ong is quiet and concentrates on his task. Across the table, his box of capped glue vials is nearly full.
When he was 5 years old, Ong was diagnosed with both autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Today, at age 28, he has an impressive résumé. Notable, of course, is his employment at Mohm Chemical. More impressive is his training at the Kiwanis CareHeart Centre.
For more than 15 years, the Sentosa, Johor Kiwanis Club-sponsored center has prepared adults with special needs for careers. Employers value CareHeart credentials, because they know its trainees have the fundamental qualifications for employment, such as punctuality, behavior and social skills. But companies also know that CareHeart goes beyond the basics by offering programs that stress creativity, healthful living habits, environmental stewardship and independence. Above all, independence.
CareHeart Principal Koh Guan Hoe maintains a brisk pace as he leads a tour of the facilities, where trainees tend verdant gardens, feed poultry, brew tea, steam dumplings, weave rugs, and cut and bend recycled cans into colorful desktop peacocks. After lunch, they rush upstairs for a karaoke break.
“I’m often asked, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Koh says with a smile. “They tell me, ‘These people are unemployable.’” His smile turns stern, and his hands wave off such comments. “I say no! No!
“I never expect an employer to lower its standards. It can be challenging, but if you understand an individual’s disorders, you can work with him to upgrade his skills so he meets the employer’s standards.”
That’s why Koh, his staff and Kiwanis supporters seek the latest training programs. Or create their own.
“We have land, so I designed horticulture programs so our trainees learn to grow plants and be close to nature.”
Beyond the center’s prawn and koi tanks are three outdoor shelters. Black tarps cover the entries. CareHeart trainees, each carrying a hand-pumped fertilizer canister, draw aside the tarps, revealing rows of shelves filled with what look like two-liter soft drink bottles laid on their sides. From the openings emerge the scalloped brown and white caps of fungi.
“We have land, so I designed horticulture programs so our trainees learn to grow plants and be close to nature,” Koh says. “We have fruits, lime, chili plants. Recently, we introduced mushroom farming, which is very unusual for any special needs center. We are the one and only center to teach mushroom farming.”
One by one, he calls trainees to bring samples. “This one is oyster mushroom,” he says, holding up a white specimen. “The other one is abalone. And that one is black fungus.”
The program involves more than just horticulture. Trainees harvest the mushrooms, package them and sell them at organic markets. “They are learning commercial enterprise,” Koh says. And “social enterprise.”
“We are good at begging,” Koh says. The center’s schedule, which is filled with appointments to welcome potential donors, shows how important contributions are to the center.
“If you give 100,000 ringgits, I am happy,” Koh says. “If you give 100 ringgits, I am still happy. But if we totally depend on donations, one of these days, people will turn around and say, ‘Why are you always asking for donations?’”
So CareHeart finds ways to earn money for itself: mushroom sales, craft sales, café sales, thrift store sales.
Creative strategies also are used to stretch those revenues and donations even further. When, for example, an auto mechanic is ready to trash a stack of old tires, CareHeart takes them and paints them with indigenous Australian art patterns. The colorful planters are sold for more revenue.
The last stop on Koh’s tour is the Kiwanis International Art Gallery, exhibiting the work of artists from around the world who live with special needs. The visitors stop to study a detailed pencil sketch of a grazing rhinoceros by Malaysian artist Yap Hanzhen. Nearby is a canvas painted with a snow-blown winter night scene titled “The Orphan Home” by Russia’s Lyahovchuk Vladimir.
Another artist shows a preference for colorful birds and flowers, but his name also appears on one of the museum’s portraits: a woman drinking tea, her head tilted as if asking a question. It is signed, “Y Chin 2010.”
“The woman in the portrait is Ong’s sister,” Koh says. “He loves her very much.”
When Ong Yong Ching arrived at CareHeart, he was very quiet and shy. His father had died in a tragic accident when Ong was 15.
“But I never gave up on Yong Ching and his amazing talents,” his mother says.
Add another notable notation on Ong’s already impressive résumé:
This story originally appeared in the June/July 2016 issue of Kiwanis magazine